Review: Proof

proof-the-science-of-boozeProof: The Science of Booze
Adam Rogers
(Mariner Books, 2014)
Amazon | Goodreads

In a brief fit of good intentions, I recently decided to try avoiding blue light before bedtime. I’ll pick out an analog book to read, naïve past-me thought, something interesting enough that I’ll want to read it instead of watching documentaries.

So I picked up a copy of Proof: The Science of Booze. This was a mistake. By page 5 this book had me so frustrated that I nearly threw it at the wall — and it turns out that impotent indignation is not conducive to falling asleep. Who knew.

I will start with the good here, because there are some good things I can say. When he’s not researching the history and science of alcohol, Adam Rogers writes for Wired. His background as a journalist shows in the anecdotes studded throughout the book; when he recounts a visit to a distillery or a conversation with an archaeologist, his voice and humor shine, and his descriptions are vivid and engrossing. These anecdotes are by far the highlight of the book, and I found them genuinely charming.

The book is also exhaustively researched, covering everything from the biology of yeast to the latest research into hangovers. Considering the vast amount of territory covered by the history of alcohol — fermentation likely dates back at least 10,000 years — it would be easy to get bogged down in the minutiae. Rogers picks out a scattering of interesting aspects, including the science behind malting, the development of the still, and the chemistry of aging liquor. He manages to strike a good balance between technical detail and engaging narrative, incorporating a wealth of scientific context without verging too far into textbook territory.

The book is occasionally a bit disjointed as a result of the amount of information Rogers tries to include; a single chapter will jump dizzyingly around the many facets of its subject, be it fermentation or distillation. His wording is sometimes imprecise. (He describes yeast as “a naturally-occurring nanotechnological machine,” which is a pretty impressive oxymoron.) He’s a cocktail snob, which I don’t have a lot of patience for. He’s also prone to overstatement — on page 5, he says that the moment when you sit at a bar and take a sip of your beer is “the culmination of human achievement.” My notes for that page simply read, “WE PUT A MAN ON THE MOON.”

These are only venial sins, and they wouldn’t keep me from recommending the book. A bit of imprecision is inevitable when you’re simplifying something as technically complex as the biochemistry of yeast. I can’t say I’m terribly shocked that a man who wrote a book about the science of booze is also a cocktail snob. And hey, maybe you find a cold beer more impressive than the moon landing. We all have our priorities.

If those were my only criticisms, I would happily recommend the book. However, Rogers commits a mortal sin for a pop science writer: He’s wrong. A lot. As a caveat, I fully expect pop science books to have simplified explanations aimed at a layperson, because that’s the entire point of the genre. A reductive explanation is perfectly acceptable. An incorrect explanation absolutely isn’t.

Rogers says that “flavor differences among the purest vodkas–composed of nothing but ethanol and water–are due to differences in the strength of the hydrogen bonds between the two ingredients.” A basic understanding of chemistry should make it clear that this is ludicrous, because that’s not how hydrogen bonds work. Failing that, the paper Rogers references plainly states that the purest vodkas are not in fact composed of “nothing but ethanol and water,” but have trace impurities that affect the strength of the hydrogen bonds.

seriously it's right there

It’s right there on page two.

He also says that in 1516, when Bavaria adopted the Reinheitsgebot, a law that mandated what ingredients could be used in beer, “no one knew what yeast was.” This is at best reductive and at worst wrong; a few moments of Googling brought up this list of historical references to brewers’ barm, the yeast-filled foam that forms during fermentation. The first reference dates back to 1438. Brewers may not have used the word “yeast,” but they certainly knew that they needed a fermenting agent and included it in their recipes.

Errors as glaring as these made it impossible to trust any of the other information in the book. I’m hardly an expert on history or chemistry; my background knowledge here came from a basic chemistry class and a BBC documentary on Tudor farming. If I caught these two errors in the first twenty pages, what was I missing later in the book?

I’m not going to go so far as to say that only scientists or academics should write pop-science books, because frankly they’re often pretty terrible at it. (I’m looking at you, Michio Kaku.) I will say, though, that if the author of a pop-science book isn’t an expert in the field, thorough fact-checking is absolutely critical. Anything less does a disservice to the months or years of research that went into the book. Proof is proof enough of that.